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Problems hearing TV and radio: some suggestions

Problems with TV sound

As technology has advanced, television and radio have become increasingly problematic for people with hearing problems. There seem to be four main reasons.

  1. One reason is that so much is in stereo with all sorts of sound effects. Wonderful as these must be for people with normal hearing who can separate out the speech. People with hearing problems have difficulty identifying the direction of sound, with the result that all sound blurs together. Then speech becomes unintelligible.

  2. A second reason is the apparent belief by those who put on the programmes that sound effects and background music have to be loud to be enjoyed. Consequently, people with sensitivity to sound sit with one finger on the volume control and the other on the mute button. I have actually worn out three controllers /remotes, while the original television was still working, just because of my excessive use of the volume control.

  3. A third reason is the apparent belief that whispered speech carries dramatic effect. Deaf people cannot readily understand whispered speech however much it is amplified because consonants tend to be swallowed and it is the consonants that make words understandable. Vowel sounds may change with regional accents, but consonants do not.

  4. A fourth reason stems from so many more channels being available than there were in the past. This 'quantity' seems to be achieved at the expense of sound 'quality'. Deaf people's ears miss enough anyway without the broadcasters removing more.

Subtitles: a coping strategy for watching TV

Television has become many times more enjoyable for me since I discovered subtitles. I am fortunate that other members of my family seem to accept them, although I realise that not all hearing people would be as accommodating. Some hearing members of my family even use them without the sound so as not to disturb others in the room. They even sometimes use them when they don't hear what is being said - which says quite a lot about the quality of the broadcast sound!

All the major UK TV channels are committed to providing subtitling as a matter of course but they do not show au­tomatically. They have to be switched on. For the television that I use, this is via the controller/remote. Sometimes I record a film on a 'minor' channel. Then if I later find that there are no subtitles, I feel really let down and have to erase unwatched. Subtitles are also available on good quality bought DVDs.

Provided that subtitles come up a moment or so before the speech, I only to have to glance at them to be able to fill in the bits of speech that I wouldn't otherwise understand. It is as if my eyes and ears work together so that my brain doesn't distinguish between the two. Subtitles used in this way effortlessly provide lip reading training.

Subtitles are available on all the major channels.

Because my eyes and ears work together with subtitles, I cannot get on with subtitling on foreign films where the spoken words are not the same as the written ones.

Problems with TV subtitles

Unfortunately subtitles are not always good enough. My main annoyances are:

  • Subtitles that are transcribed in 'real time', ie while the speech is being spoken, like on the national news programmes. The technology must be impressive but it is irritating and almost impossible to use because:
  • The subtitles come up fractionally later than the spoken word and interfere with each other in my mind. Often by the time that they appear, the relevant picture has gone anyway.

  • The text 'jumps up' line by line as the speech progresses whereas everyone is used to going to the next line themselves in their own time when they reach the end of a line.

  • The transcription of some words is often so wrong that it would be laughable if it were a laughing matter.

Personally I do not find that this type of subtitling is better than nothing. So for watching the programmes that use it, I have to rely on other strategies - see below - which are generally less effective and do not make use of subtitles.

  • Subtitles that paraphrase. For my type of hearing loss which is not complete, my ears and eyes work together and I am looking for written keywords to support what I can hear. Paraphrasing gives my mind mixed messages which interfere with the flow of the programme.

  • Subtitles that show the voices of different actors in the same paragraph, ie without a line between and a different colour coding. By the time, I have sorted this out, the scene has changed, so I see no corresponding visual input. I would be better off reading a book which successfully manages without visual input.

  • Subtitles that change so quickly that there is no time to read them, although I accept that this is dictated by the speed of the dialogue and is probably unavoidable. In practice it is surprising how seldom it happens.

Headphones for use with TV and radio

Headphones which plug into the TV or radio can be very useful indeed for listening to television and radio. However with my type of deafness, I am uncomfortable with any sound-generating device close to my ears for long. Hence my preference for subtitles. However, if you can use headphones, do, because good ones really do improve the quality and clarity of the sound - not just its loudness. For short periods, I can and do use them with my computer for online TV. I consider them in some detail on the headphones page.

In all situations I know, plugging in headphones, cuts off the speakers so that no-one else can hear what is being said. This may have advantages in not disturbing other people, but it does mean that one can't enjoy a programme together. There are supposed to be ways round this but I have never found any successful ones. Staff at a good quality audio outlet may be able to help.

Hearing loop systems (induction systems) for TV and radio

It is possible to have loop systems installed in one's home, for use in conjunction with hearing aids. Although I do have experience of loop systems generally, I can't speak from experience of home ones, but I am told by those who do that they work well.

More on hearing strategies for TV and radio

My other strategies are so obvious that all deaf people probably use them anyway:

  • I do not attempt to listen to a play on the radio because I cannot distinguish the voices of the different actors well enough.

  • With action films it is surprising how much one can pick up from just seeing the action even without subtitles. However, I never watch live: I only watch recordings. If there are no clues from the action and I cannot interpret what is being said which seems important, I press the pause button and ask someone to repeat for me. This obviously can't be done when watching live. If no-one is around, that's just too bad. Sometimes I keep replaying, but more often than not, it is no clearer to me the next time round.

  • I like radio documentaries where there is a single well-spoken presenter, but I do wish that the sound effects, which I understand are supposed to add to the emotion of the location, could be less intrusive.

  • Some programmes created specially for the World Service are easier to understand because the presenters make a point of speaking clearly for an audience whose first language is not English.
10 coping strategies for the deaf


Disclaimer: The information on this site is for a lay audience and I cannot be responsible for errors or omissions. The views, strategies, advice and suggestions etc are based on my personal experience and are not necessarily appropriate for anyone else. They should, hopefully, stimulate individuals to develop their own strategies.